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Tales From The Stands: Sunderland 2-1 Crystal Palace, March 1991 - More than just three points?

Who remembers Sunderland’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace back in March 1991 - and did the result mean MORE than just three points?

Kieron Brady in full flight against Crystal Palace in March 1991
TARC Archive

It was a fairly strange way to get promoted thinking back.

Finding out on teletext what the Football Association’s final decision was regarding Swindon Town. Especially after following the most comprehensive 1-0 defeat I’ve ever witnessed in the play-off final at Wembley.

It then got to the next level of weird when Ron Atkinson turned up during coverage of the 1990 World Cup stating, in no uncertain terms, that he believed Sheffield Wednesday should stay up instead of Sunderland being promoted. On top of that, we also had our friends up the road claiming the place because they finished the season third in Division Two.

We lapped it up though, two years previous it was third tier football and now we had a chance at Division One... you’re too right we thought it should be us who took Swindon Town’s place.

But it was clear not everyone agreed.

A lot of people have got knives in our backs because they believe we don’t deserve to be in the First Division.

Gary Bennett

Swindon Town Division Two play off winners 1990
Don’t pop the champagne too soon boys
Photo by Allsport/Getty Images

Fast forward nine months and Sunderland would come into the home game against Crystal Palace in 19th position (out of twenty teams) in the First Division, on the back of a run of one win in eight and three straight defeats.

The month of March 1991 began with a disappointing 3-3 draw against Derby County at the Baseball Ground. Usually an away point in the top tier of English football isn’t the end of the world, but this one stung.

Derby County were languishing at the foot of the table and Sunderland could smell three much needed points. This was only heightened through goals by Gordon Armstrong, Marco Gabbiadini and Kevin Ball, to put Sunderland 3-0 up after only 23 minutes.

Marco Gabbiadini
Marco Gabbiadini
Photo by Tom Jenkins/Allsport/Getty Images

However, two goals by Dean Saunders before half time would cut the lead to one before the break, and then a Saunders penalty on 75 minutes completed his hat-trick as well as completing Derby’s comeback.

In a season where Sunderland lost more leads than Inspector Clouseau, this match summed up how Sunderland played during 1990-91. We would by the end, relinquish the lead to get nothing out of a game on eleven separate occasions.

We gained many admirers for the way we attacked without fear, and whether it was naivety or belief, it just wasn’t in our nature to shut up shop.

Some of the play was a joy to watch. Even when we were leading 2-0 our centre-half was upfield trying to score!

Denis Smith after a 3-3 draw at Tottenham Hotspur

After Derby, Sunderland suffered three straight defeats to Sheffield United and Aston Villa at Roker Park, and also a 2-1 defeat at Anfield sandwiched in-between the two home games. This was despite Gordon Armstrong giving Sunderland the lead after 18 minutes.

Sunderland manager Denis Smith
Getty Images

Not only was it a blow that Sunderland failed to get anything out of a game we led at Anfield, but more significantly perhaps, we also lost Marco Gabbiadini for six weeks after he picked up an injury in the game.

Was this as big a blow as we all feared...or was this an opportunity?

The season started with Denis Smith utilising the new £250,000 signing from Middlesbrough, Peter Davenport, upfront alongside Marco Gabbiadini.

This would be Smith’s front two in every League game from Norwich City away on the opening day until Leeds United at Roker two days before Christmas, when Davenport picked up an injury.

Peter Davenport of Sunderland
Peter Davenport
Getty Images

Knocking on the door of the first team at this time, via the odd substitute appearance, were Warren Hawke (20), David Rush (19) and Kieron Brady (20).

None of three had made any significant contribution to Sunderland's season by this point. This was especially true of Brady, who carried a weight of expectation due to his exploits the previous year, and so far had a disappointing four appearances as substitute.

After Rush opened the scoring with his first of the season away to Crystal Palace on Boxing Day (before Sunderland surrendered the lead yet again), Rush then started the next four games.

This run of games included an FA Cup 3rd round defeat to Arsenal at Highbury, ending 2-1, where he led the line alongside Warren Hawke to good effect.

Warren Hawke and David Rush lead the line for Sunderland against Southampton on New Year’s Day 1991 with a 20-year-old Alan Shearer looking on

With games under their belts, Sunderland’s youngsters were being noticed, this resulted in David Rush winning the Barclays Young Eagle award in December.

Young Rush looks a tremendous prospect. He missed a couple of chances, but he never stopped grafting and caused us all kinds of problems. We couldn’t relax with him around.

George Graham, Arsenal manager

Then we come to the game at Roker Park against Crystal Palace. Denis Smith not only started the game with the front two of Brady and Rush (whilst only naming Davenport as substitute), but also gave starts to Richard Ord (21), Brian Atkinson (20), and Anthony Smith (19).

If you also throw Gary Owers (22) into the mix, who also started that day, then six of the team who started against Palace were 22 or under.

On a typically windy March day at Roker, it all started to get interesting just after the half hour mark when Brian Atkinson picked up a loose pass by Ian Wright mid way inside the Palace half.

Brian Atkinson of England
Brian Atkinson in action for England U21’s
Getty Images

He took a touch to make sure the ball wasn’t ending up in the cat and dog steps, and without the need for a look up, knew that Brady was already on his bike towards the Roker End between the Palace centre-back pairing of Andy Thorn and Eric Young.

A perfectly weighted pass followed that Brady could let run a couple of yards inside the 18-yard box, and without the need to take a touch smashed the ball with his left foot against the underside of the bar leaving Nigel Martyn a stunned spectator in the Palace goal. Advantage Sunderland.

Crystal Palace, however, were a good side that would finish third behind Arsenal and Liverpool in the First Division at the end of the year and they stepped it up

Two minutes after the break, a long throw by Andy Gray found it’s way to everyone’s favourite dancer Alan Pardew, who tucked it into the bottom corner to Tony Norman’s right to level the game.

Both teams were now going for it, and with twelve minutes left on the clock, Richard Ord brought the ball out of defence and played a tidy pass to find Kieron Brady on the right hand touchline mid way inside the Palace half.

Brady had one thing on his mind, and that was to run at the Crystal Palace defence. Under no challenge, he cut inside and delivered a precise cross to find David Rush at the back post about six yards from goal without a Palace player within ten yards of him.

He headers it back to where it came from down to Nigel Martyn’s left hand side and the Fulwell End is a mass of limbs.

David Rush scoring the winner against Crystal Palace at the Fulwell End

To the relief of the the majority of Roker Park the final whistle would blow without any change to the scoreline - Sunderland 2-1 Crystal Palace.

Sunderland’s young side beat a very good Crystal Palace side that day. It’s also easy to forget that more established players who were unavailable that day such as Gordon Armstrong and Marco Gabbiadini, were both only 23 years-old at the time.

In typical Sunderland fashion, we fought until the end of the 1990-91 season and went down on the last day at Maine Road in a day that will never be forgotten.

With their players - and the best set of opposition fans I’ve ever seen at Maine Road - Sunderland should get back.

Niall Quinn, Manchester City

Manchester City vs Sunderland, 11th May 1991 match day programme cover

After relegation, Denis Smith seemed to lose some of that confidence that took us so high so quickly. Marco Gabbiadini was sold not long into the 1991-92 season to raise funds that, again, did not come from the board.

Players such as Brady, Rush, Smith, Atkinson and Hawke (for a variety of reasons) didn’t progress in the way their early promise suggested, and the younger established players such as Armstrong and Owers went stale as Sunderland churned through managers.

It was a young squad that Denis Smith had to work with in the First Division that year and they came so close to staying up.

There’s no doubt that the inexperience of the squad had some part to play that we were ultimately relegated, but it was also a major reason we played with a swagger in 1990-91 and why we were so proud of them, even in the face of being relegated.

Maybe it was a wasted opportunity with this young squad? Maybe they weren’t all that good after all and were performing above themselves?

But it’s some thought to think what could have been under Denis Smith if we’d stayed up, especially with the creation of the Premier League just around the corner.

30th March 1991

Sunderland 2-1 Crystal Palace

Sunderland: Norman, Kay, Smith, Bennett, Ord, Owers, Atkinson, Bracewell, Hardyman, Brady (1), Rush (1) Subs: (not used) Davenport, Mooney.

Crystal Palace: Martyn, Humphrey, Shaw, Young, Thorn, Gray, Thomas, Pardew (1) (Sub: McGoldrick), Salako, Bright, Wright Sub: (not used) Bodin

Attendance: 19,704